One of the core problems with standard e-mail accounts is that business communications accumulate in individual accounts in a way that ensures they are not routinely accessible even to close colleagues.
This was brought home to me when I worked with an organisation that had shared drives, a collaboration tool, and an electronic records system, but who conducted most of its business through e-mail. A key part of their work was influencing and managing relations with external stakeholders, and the communications with those external stakeholders were for the most part only captured in e-mail.
A practice arose that when an individual left to take up another post elsewhere in the organisation, then the internal person replacing them would ask that individual to make an archive ( .pst) file of their e-mail account. Sometimes the individual agreed, and left them a copy of their e-mails on the shared drive. Sometimes they said no.
The practice was not officially supported or condoned (though it was not outlawed either).
This is a succession planning issue. Staff starting a new role often need to see the e-mail of there predecessor, in order to carry on with the working relationships of there predecessor. One person told me that she had transferred roles several times, and she had found it significantly more difficult to get to grips with a role when her predecessor had not provided her with an an e-mail .pst archive.
There is an element of absurdity to the situation. There was no benefit to the organisation for e-mail to be duplicated to a flakey .pst file sitting precariously on a shared drive. The organisation already held all of each outgoing post-holder’s e-mails, it just had no way of letting their successors see them.
The presence of personal communications mixed in with business communications means there is no purely technical solution to this problem.
Here is a quote from one of the respondants to the recent survey by State Records New South Wales of e-mail usage in public authorities
Even when emails are captured in our EDRMS (electronic documents and records management system) users focus on capturing emails from their inbox (i.e. email received) and forget about the need to capture sent emails. While it is easy to set up automated links between email folders and the EDRMS, a set and forget method, users fail to save their sent emails to the linked folder. I have failed to find an elegant, non-intrusive method to achieve the capture of the whole ‘story’.
The vision of having colleagues co-operate together to maintain a file that tells the whole story of a piece of work remains tantalisingly out of reach, even in the case of the organisation quoted above, who seem to have done all the right things.
They have integrated their electronic records management system with the e-mail client so that folders in staff e-mail accounts can be linked to folders in the records system. What more can they do?
The market will bring a solution to the specific ‘sent items’ problem that the respondent mentioned,through some sort of conversation threading so that sent e-mails are treated together with the e-mails that they responded to/received in response.
But at the same time it will bring different disruptive technologies – for example-mail access on smart phones that are too small to support drag and drop to folders; cloud e-mail that might prompt an organisation to dispense with the e-mail client that had been integrated to the electronic records system etc.
Technology gives with one hand and takes with the other. And the sheer fact of constant change means that colleagues/end-users do not have enough time in any one technological configuration to develop the shared routines and habits that would lead to them keeping a complete electronic file for each piece of work that their team undertakes.